The future of the CDO: Chief Data Officers need to sit near the top

In a funny way, CDOs and gardeners are quite similar. At least we were left with that impression after talking to Andy Joss. “It’s about data. Companies are realising that they must either become a disruptor or find a way to deal with disruption.” For Andy Joss, Head of solutions and data governance, EMEA and Latin America for Informatica, data is key. The way that data is managed and indeed tended and nurtured, maybe in much the same way a gardener tends and nurtures the garden, is vital. That means the chief data officer has been catapulted to somewhere near the top. As for the future of the CDO, Andy reckons that for many, board positions await.

“There are two types of CDOs,” he suggests. There is the CDO, whose role is quite distinct from that of data scientists. In this case, the CDO will focus on strategy — the big picture, driving leadership and strategic direction. Meanwhile, the data scientist is “responsible for tangible things like using analytics and data to drive better customer experience — delivering outcomes that an organisation is looking for.”

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In the other case, the CDO and data scientist work closer together, maybe to the extent that the roles are overlap — at least the CDO will often carry out tasks that would normally fall within the data scientist’s remit.

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But which one is better? It is tempting to assume that in the case where CDO and data scientists are distinct roles, the chief data officer has more authority — is more highly regarded. “But actually,” suggests Andy, “it is not that straightforward.

“In the second version, CDOs tend to be more outcome focused, but with a big vision too.” In this version of the CDO, maybe there are less silos.

Andy was not suggesting that this second manifestation of the CDO was better, but that it can be better.

Either way, the future role of the CDO, suggests Andy is one of increasing importance.

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Data science and the CDO: and the 80/20 rule working in the wrong direction

“Data scientists can be quite expensive, but they are not always as efficient as they can be, as organisations don’t have the right data management capabilities to allow them to do their job as well as they can. Data scientists often spend 80% of their time finding and assessing and preparing data and 20% of their time doing data science.” That is not want companies are paying them for. That’s where the CDO enters the story.

To make the work of a data scientist more effective, someone needs to ask the right questions of the data scientist: is this the right data? Have you got the data from the right place? Is it what you think it is? Indeed, given the requirements of GDPR and other regulations, can you use the data in a way that is compliant?”

“I see the CDO and certainly the future role of the CDO involving bringing those best management practices and expertise not just to make it more efficient but to drive better outcomes.

“It’s about people, process and technology, but the CDO sits at top of that pyramid.”

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Why the future of the CDO is bright: Caring for data

There is a compelling story for the CDO, suggests Andy, that is why the future of the CDO is so rosy. He explained: “Business users should care about maintaining data, because there is a value to them in doing it. I see CDOs driving that message.”

Understanding the importance of data

“I don’t think people at a senior level really understand data science and AI and machine learning (ML). It’s a bit like big data a few years ago. People were saying ‘fantastic it is going to do all these great things’ without understanding whether it was the right thing or not. And indeed the value in it.”

The CDO’s role then is partly in education across the organisation. “AI and machine learning are trendy” suggests Andy. “But if you are training an AI model, having really good data, gives you more confidence that you will get the right outcome.”

It’s simple logic, but neglected practice. Data for data’s sake may go some way to satisfying the board and shareholders that an organisation is embracing the data age, but it will eventually need to see this work reflected in the company’s P&L and balance sheet.

The evangeliser

“The CDO needs to be an evangeliser and data educator across an organisation, not just to optimise opportunities but also because in this post GDPR world, there are obligations, too.”

Looking to the board

“Data is fundamental to organisations. It is fundamental to marketing, production, purchasing and HR.

“For this reason, I would argue that for many organisations, the CDO should be reporting at board level — we have chief operating officer and chief finance officer and CFOs as finance and operations touch every aspect of an organisation. I would argue that data is just as important.

He explained further: “CDOs can explain how data affects organisations, because an error here can have implications across an organisation.

“Data can also drive operational efficiency— that gets attention at board level!”

Data management culture and the future role of the CDO

“Data management culture, is about installing key principles and key practices for the maintenance and care of data to maintain value over time. It’s partly about how an organisation’s culture needs to adapt, partly about tools, technology, and practices and also about how it all connects together — how this supports the business model. Many organisations are data driven, and the CDO is critical in keeping all this going in the right direction.

“In an age of disruption, it is about how organisations achieve being data driven when they are either being disrupted or they are the disruptor.”

Andy Joss, Head of solutions and data governance, EMEA and Latin America for Informatica spoke to Michael Baxter on April 5th 2019.

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Michael Baxter

.Michael Baxter is a tech, economic and investment journalist. He has written four books, including iDisrupted and Living in the age of the jerk. He is the editor of and the host of the ESG...

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